On Air
March 4th 2020

Simon Black is an assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, who been active in the anti-poverty and labour movements since he was a teenager. He is also a founder of Labour Against the Arms Trade. Scott Neigh interviews him about Canada's involvement in arms production and about his group's work within the labour movement to oppose the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Despite mythologies about Canada that paint a picture of devotion to peacekeeping and to noble goals, there is a long history of Canadian involvement in -- among other very bad things -- the manufacture, sale and trade of arms.

Part of why Canadians remain largely unaware of our arms industry is because government monitoring and regulation are confusing, inconsistent and opaque. This makes it difficult to report on and analyze. In 2016, Ploughshares Canada estimated Canadian manufacturers exported arms worth about $2-3 billion and sold a similar amount domestically to the Canadian military. In that year, we became the second biggest arms exporter to the Middle East. Canada is consistently in the top 15 exporters globally of pistols, rifles and light machine guns. Again, according to Ploughshares, Canadian arms exports reached new heights in 2018, and despite increased rhetoric about tight export controls, four of the top 10 recipient countries in that year were involved in armed conflict and had been credibly accused of serious human-rights violations.

In August 2018, Black was watching the news and saw a report of a bombing by the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen that destroyed a school bus, killing 40 children and injuring 56 more. The plane that dropped the bomb was sold to Saudi Arabia by the United States. As he watched, he happened to be holding his two-month-old daughter. This juxtaposition focused his attention like never before on the pain of all of those parents who had lost their children in this bombing, and launched him on a path of organizing against the arms trade.

That bombing took place in the context of an ongoing military intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, done with logistical and intelligence support from the US and other Western powers. As a result, Yemen is currently experiencing the world's worst humanitarian crisis. More than 24 million people in Yemen, or around 80 per cent of the population, will require humanitarian assistance this year.

The Canadian connection comes in the form of a massive deal in which General Dynamics Land Systems Canada in London, Ontario, is being paid upwards of $15 billion to manufacture light armoured vehicles (LAVs) for the Saudi military. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship with a terrible human rights record even aside from its role in the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, so it is unclear how this deal is consistent with the principles that Canada claims to observe.

Groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam Canada were already demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cancel the deal, so Black decided to focus specifically on organizing within the labour movement.

Labour Against the Arms Trade looks to the long and proud history of grassroots labour opposition around the world to war and empire. It includes instances of dock workers declaring arms -- including a few times, in recent years, arms bound for Saudi Arabia -- to be "hot cargo" and refusing to handle them. And it includes instances of workers demanding that their own plants, with state support, undergo conversion from military production to socially useful production.

The group's first action was an open letter to Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, asking that the CLC oppose this deal, that it declare arms destined for Saudi Arabia to be "hot cargo," and that it put its resources behind coordinating labour opposition to the deal. Signatories included some large public sector unions, some major labour councils, and some NDP MPs and MPPs. Unifor, which represents workers at the plant that makes the LAVs and has a strong tradition of concern for human rights and social justice, has expressed concern about both human rights in Saudi Arabia and the jobs of its members. And to date, Yussuff has not responded.

Labour Against the Arms Trade followed this up with an online petition. The group was active in raising the issue during last year's federal election campaign. And they are currently planning a meeting with community, peace, and labour activists in London, Ontario, as well as a national day of action against the deal.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list. Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of Labour Against the Arms Trade.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

  • Time